The New York Times
The Right-Hand Shoreby Christopher Tilghman
A masterful novel that confronts the dilemmas of race, family, and forbidden love in the wake of America's Civil War
Fifteen years after the publication of his acclaimed novel Mason's Retreat, Christopher Tilghman returns to the Mason family and the Chesapeake Bay in The Right-Hand Shore.
It is 1920, and Edward Mason is making a/p>/i>/i>/p>/b>… See more details below
A masterful novel that confronts the dilemmas of race, family, and forbidden love in the wake of America's Civil War
Fifteen years after the publication of his acclaimed novel Mason's Retreat, Christopher Tilghman returns to the Mason family and the Chesapeake Bay in The Right-Hand Shore.
It is 1920, and Edward Mason is making a call upon Miss Mary Bayly, the current owner of the legendary Mason family estate, the Retreat. Miss Mary is dying. She plans to give the Retreat to the closest direct descendant of the original immigrant owner that she can find. Edward believes he can charm the old lady, secure the estate and be back in Baltimore by lunchtime.
Instead, over the course of a long day, he hears the stories that will forever bind him and his family to the land. He hears of Miss Mary's grandfather brutally selling all his slaves in 1857 in order to avoid the reprisals he believes will come with Emancipation. He hears of the doomed efforts by Wyatt Bayly, Miss Mary's father, to turn the Retreat into a vast peach orchard, and of Miss Mary and her brother growing up in a fractured and warring household. He learns of Abel Terrell, son of free blacks who becomes head orchardist, and whose family becomes intimately connected to the Baylys and to the Mason legacy.
The drama in this richly textured novel proceeds through vivid set pieces: on rural nineteenth-century industry; on a boyhood on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; on the unbreakable divisions of race and class; and, finally, on two families attempting to save a son and a daughter from the dangers of their own innocent love. The result is a radiant work of deep insight and peerless imagination about the central dilemma of American history.
The Right-Hand Shore is a New York Times Notable Book of 2012.
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Read an Excerpt
We see Miss Mary Bayly and her distant and much younger cousin Mr. Edward Mason sitting on the porch of the Mansion House on her ancestral farm, Mason’s Retreat. Edward Mason has crossed his legs; one foot, Mary feels, is poised in order for her to admire his English shoes. There is a bit of mud, or worse (or better, as far as Mary would be concerned), on the left toe. The vast porch is bare except for the two wicker armchairs into which they have settled and the butler’s table placed between them, on which his tea, untouched, and hers, unwanted, are getting cold. There is a slight breeze fruited with odors of the Chesapeake: sea grass pollen, clay flats, fish living and dead. It is September 8, 1920, eight o’clock in the morning, and the air above the Chester River is clear enough to reveal the rooflines of the waterman’s village on Kent Island, the silhouettes of the loblollies of Hail Point, the spars and poles of the oyster dredgers. The chairs have been placed so that neither one of them can be distracted by this view.
“Certainly,” says Edward Mason. “Indeed. A very sensible arrangement.”
What a fool, thinks Miss Mary. She stares at Edward Mason long enough for him to show discomfort, as if those three empty and useless utterances might have contained the seeds of a bad mistake. His mustache, his flushed skin and red hair, his broad, big-eared, needy Mason face; his grand arrival on the porch where she had been waiting for him. Madam. He thinks he is being courtly, as if what he has learned by watching the men at whatever club he is in will get him everything they got. Well, he’s not in Boston now. This place will eat him alive, she is sure of that. She’s seen far better men destroyed by the place. Far better. He has no idea what he is saying, what he is agreeing to. As a Catholic who has spent years of her life trying to emulate the love and tenderness of the Sacred Heart of Jesus—we will learn more about that later—she has a duty to slow him down.
“I’d think you’d want to reflect on it,” she says. “I’m not offering you something without burden.” Now she takes a sip of her tea, and though it is cold, it is still spicy, it still flowers on the tongue; this will end all too soon, in dust, eaten by insects. “Perhaps you’ll want to discuss it with your wife.”
“I’m certain she’ll be thrilled.”
“And why?” asks Mary. Why did he think she would be thrilled? Why did he claim to be “certain” about the desires of another, especially the desires of a spouse? She met Edward Mason a half hour ago, and already she believes that he thinks of no one but himself, that this wife will not be consulted. Oh, Mary could fill this girl’s ears, but why bother? She married him; she deserves the life her husband provides.
Mary’s questions are having, if not the desired effect, then at least an interesting one. The more she pushes back at all his frumperies, the more he takes refuge in them. It is the only hand he has to play; he’ll dig deeper and deeper trying to undercut her, and he’ll end up in China before he quits. What does she care? She is dying. She had taken an extra dose of morphine before he arrived, and her pain is dulled enough for her to think it amusing to inflict some on others.
“Well,” he says, finally beginning to wither a little, “to take on this magnificent mantle.” He waves around to indicate the surroundings—this porch on which they are sitting, its red tile floor, white columns; the structure the porch is attached to; high, square rooms and dark mahogany furnishings, the Philadelphia highboy; the lawns and box bush and flower gardens; the farm buildings and implements at the far end of the lane; the people who live there and work there by choice or by default; the pigs, chickens, sheep, and, above all, the prized Jersey cattle; the fields and pine stands and oak groves and tidal wetlands; the rats and raccoons, the fox and deer. Not to mention, hovering above in their timelessness with this landscape in their grasp, the dead souls that Mason knows nothing about.
“As in burden,” states Miss Mary, insisting on her original word. She winces—a stab of pain from her abdomen. In every conceivable way she has the upper hand with this man, but still, she cannot tolerate the idea that he can observe her pain. Her suffering cannot show; her sufferings have never, ever been allowed to show. She won’t let anyone but her servants observe her pain, and only them because it can’t be avoided; from their wing, they can hear her howling at night. She lies in bed and bellows like a cow with a calf ripping its way down the birth canal; in her life she avoided that supremely female experience of defeat and surrender, and now this. And though Mary doesn’t want her to but needs her, Valerie Hardy comes in, a lamentable angel in black and white leading her way with a candle, and gives her the morphine and strips off her soaked nightgown and dries her diseased body and slips her into something fresh and spreads out as best she can a dry sheet, and Mary can’t help it: no relief, no physical pleasure in her conscripted life ever, ever felt better than this warming blossom of morphine and the crisp tang of fresh linen on her skin. “Will that do you now, Miss Mary?” asks Valerie, and Mary nods, and she hates Valerie for all of this, her own powerlessness in the face of pain, the shame of her nakedness, the ecstasy of her relief.
“I certainly wouldn’t think of it that way,” Edward Mason responds. “Responsibility, perhaps. A family responsibility.” He coughs into the top of his fist.
“There are additional ‘responsibilities,’” she says. “I gather you and your wife are Episcopalians.”
“Church of England,” he says proudly. “But really, we’re all Catholics, aren’t we?”
Mason has clearly been primed for this one and believes this old “we are all Catholics” dodge is good enough. But we are not all Catholics. “The Masons remained true to the Faith even when it cost them dearly. Your forebears did not consider the differences inconsequential.” She recognizes that he knows nothing about this history, the history of the Catholics in Maryland. She lets it go, decides to leave as a codicil in her will that in order to take possession of the Retreat, the new owner must convert. It would be no impediment for Mason; he’d do it on the way home from her lawyers’ offices if he could. Instead, she moves to another matter, which will, if she gauges him correctly, cause him to suck in his breath.
“The property,” she says, “is to pass entire and undivided to your oldest surviving son. If you have no son, you may do with it what you like.”
He had been engaged in the small matter of Catholicism and was surprised and relieved to hear that the discussion had moved on. “My wife and I hope for nothing more than a son.”
“And second, you may sell or remove nothing other than farm products from the Retreat for a period of twenty-five years.” She meets his eye, speaks this quarter-century delay like a prison sentence, right through his eardrums, down his throat.
Edward feels himself being unfairly attacked by this remark. He is not an idiot. He had been the awkward only child of aging parents, an uncertain and unpromising adolescent, and he had done what any animal does in order to survive, which was to make the best of what he had. He’d done all right, navigated Boston society without losing his ambitions, an accomplishment in itself. He’d completed an engineering degree at Sheffield, won a wife whom other men were mad about. He is no fool, even if he seems so to others, and he is not a crook either; at this bright and promising dawn of his life, the last thing he is thinking is that he will ever want or need to empty the house of its contents. He’s assuming success in his affairs. He realizes he is being challenged, and he engages her stare. “I would expect nothing but,” he says, a small tremor of indignation in his voice. “I can assure you that I would seek only to maintain the Retreat in the manner you have done.”
As it turns out, this single moment is what wins him, or condemns him to, the Retreat. Miss Mary nods. She is still solidly put together, but the disease has begun to starve her face. Edward realizes that the decisions and conclusions she is drawing in these days of her life are final and irrevocable; she has a list of them to get through and no time to renegotiate. Indeed, on his way in he noticed packing crates and steamer trunks in the hall.
“I understand that you have been living in England?” she asks.
Edward has expected this. Absentee ownership, et cetera and et cetera. He protests that they have not actually taken up residence there. Not yet, he thinks, but obviously does not say. He points out that he was in Boston when her letter arrived. What a piece of luck that was! He knows that he is not the only pretender to this throne; Mary’s lawyers made that clear to him, which is what got him hopping the first train down from Boston to Baltimore and then on a steamboat to the Eastern Shore to make his case. One of two Masons of the direct line from the Emigrant himself, now that Mary’s line, through her mother, had daughtered out sans name or heir to sustain it. Edward had been only vaguely aware that his people’s beginnings in America were in Maryland, and then this most intriguing letter arrived. A vast property that required only her signature for him to acquire, not that he might have much of a clue what to do with it. So what: he is in the stage of life that is all about acquisition, accumulation, increase. The answer to every offer is yes. Edward is more aware of the situation than Mary realizes. He knows Mary is dying. Everyone in the county knows that. She is not even sixty, in fact not even that close to sixty. Why, except for a mortal disease, all the rush? He believes he is fully apprised of the events in her life. He had not been on the steamer from Baltimore for more than five minutes before he casually dropped her name and the steward devoured it, told him stories about her, the downstairs version—revered as a great lady but considered two-faced by the staff. Told him one story, went away to settle other passengers, and then came back to tell him another, and even as Edward was moving down the gangplank at Love Point, this man was at his side. “She’s dying, you know,” he had all but shouted, and other passengers, farmers on their way back from selling their hogs and tomatoes and butter in the markets in Baltimore, ladies returning from shopping and tea, commercial travelers and drummers and farm implement salesmen, many of these people turned upon hearing this arresting phrase at high volume, and from the nods and recognition in every one of their faces, Edward deduced that they all knew he was talking about Miss Mary Bayly. Of course, Edward also received the less welcome impression that every one of them knew exactly who he was and why he was there. That he was one of the two pretenders. So be it. Edward could rise to the competition. His rival—he had wormed this out of Mary’s lawyers the day before in Baltimore—was a man whose branch had moved to Oklahoma two generations earlier, far out of the orbit, light-years farther out of the Eastern Shore and Baltimore and Philadelphia universe than Boston. Edward wasn’t worried about the man from Oklahoma, if indeed he made it to the Retreat to see Mary before she died, which people now thought unlikely.
But still, to the matter of the venture in England: “I have bought a small machine tool company in Manchester and intend to live there as long as it might take to shape it up. Fine craftsmen, but badly behind the times. Now that the war in France is over, England needs to reassert herself.”
The thought of England reasserting herself does not please Mary. She is no fan of the English. But it’s not a fight worth picking at this moment. “How long will it take to ‘shape it up’?” she asks.
Edward doesn’t love the ironic tone she uses when quoting him. He will admit that she is formidable. She seems much larger than he had expected: he had imagined a tiny old spinster. Much bigger-bosomed; a muscular face, even if she was wasting away from cancer (of the female parts—yes, the county knew even that of her disease, there is no privacy to be had); even at her age much prettier than seemed possible for a person who, if the stories he’d heard were true, had spent most of her life with her brow screwed in displeasure and contempt.
“A year perhaps. Two. My wife is from Chicago. We intend to raise our children in America.” This was, of course, not the truth. They had every intention of setting up shop in England, raising their children there, coming back only for triumphant visits, perhaps to this very estate. There was a chance that Miss Mary knew this; for years he had been loudly and publicly proclaiming his disdain for life in the United States, its lack of savor, of nuance, of breeding. Anyone who grew up with him or was acquainted with the family in Boston had heard him, and Miss Mary’s lawyers seemed extremely well informed. Still, he had a response just in case: Yes, in my younger days I might have thought of leaving, but now, after marrying and contemplating a family, I find—to my surprise, I will admit, a pleasant surprise I must say—that …
A liar, along with everything else, thinks Mary. She could not have, and did not, expect anything better. The Masons, the men especially, bundled their own fates in with all their half-truths, secrets, and terrors. Her mother’s father; her mother’s brothers, both of whom had died needlessly fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Mary could say this about her cancer and mean it: she was grateful to be dying of a disease that anyone, king to slave, could get, rather than to suffer one of the especial fates that seemed peculiarly Mason. She could do without the pain; it’s there at this very moment, jutting its sharp elbows through the medication. The Masons; yes, the Masons. Back through the generations, the Masons, most of whom were buried just around the corner from where they now sat, one after another coming to miseries. Did anyone think all this was just family self-aggrandizement, this affectation of curses received from God, the assertion of a unique Apocalypse? Perhaps, Mary thinks. But there was a simpler answer: that the Masons just weren’t very bright. Plodders—not enough imagination to add to the family coffers, not enough panache to leave them busted. Generation after generation dimly clinging to all that had gone before. Only her father, not a Mason but married to one, tried to unearth it all, gave his life trying to reverse it, to create abundance, sweetness. There is one truth, one of the deepest, most fundamental truths about her, that she would gladly admit, though no one has ever been willing to put it to her face: yes, she had loved very few men in her life. For several years she had lived in Baltimore, and young beaux had come flocking. Mary was pretty enough. Look at those bones, that hair. That tiny waist. But she was a little too tall, taller than half the boys who came her way. Still, she had once been engaged, but the heart was not in it. She had never met a man like her father, no one with his constancy, his capacity for love, his humor, his intellect. If only she hadn’t met her own father—and Jesus—how much happier her life would have been.
Mason coughs into his handkerchief.
Yes, she has lost the thread. The pain is now staring her in the face, the pain with its witch’s visage, something from Grimm’s. What more to accomplish with this man? “Mr. French will show you around the property,” she says, trying not to sound out of breath. “Any questions you have concerning the farm operation he can answer.”
“Splendid. It’s always wise to confer with the experts.” He’s trying to appear humble, to establish common ground, but his “experts” is as condescending as it gets.
Even with a crisis coming on, Mary cannot let this go unchallenged. “Mr. Mason, you have already been ‘conferring with the experts,’ as you put it. As I said, Mr. French can answer any questions. He has been the manager of the Retreat since the end of the Civil War.”
There it is again, the quotes; stick around her and he’d hear this entire conversation transcribed. He stands up with the greatest relief and is overjoyed to see that she does not also rise, will not be showing him to the door.
“My lawyers will be in touch with my decision,” she says in place of a goodbye.
A butler appears, his elderly black face leaning out the great doors to show him the way. How many servants? Mason wonders. Seems he has seen many, at least five gardeners; he has to admit there is much about this life that is foreign and unfamiliar in Boston and compares favorably with England. Certainly his circle of acquaintance in England has not yet risen to equivalent wealth, though he hopes it may soon. He follows the butler through the high hallway. Now that the signs point to success in this visit, he pays the contents more mind: a quite fine tea table, a nice clock or two, portraits of Masons all over the place, the usual priceless clutter. He has to admit that he is relieved that very little of it seems destined for the three large packing crates in the corner, their tops pulled to one side like hatches on a ship’s holds.
“This way, sir,” says the butler, and shows him to the landside door. In front of them is a parkland of mowed grass and trees of diverse species, English elm, ginkgo, copper beech; off to one side the beginning of the perennial gardens that circle three sides of the house. Beyond this parkland are the fields, pasturage now; Edward does not know that not too long ago it was peaches, nothing but peach trees, tens of thousands of them. He does not realize that his eye is being drawn to what is not there, an echo, a pentimento. He pauses a bit while this all settles in, but the butler is hurrying him out, and Edward wonders why until, just as he reaches the bottom of the stoop, he hears a chilling, almost inhuman cry of pain from the porch. Footsteps begin running through the house. He can’t help, in his own horror, gazing directly into the butler’s eyes, and he sees the truth of the household. Yes, it was good that he did not delay making this trip.
Mr. French is there, waiting in the Ford in which he had retrieved Edward from the dock at Love Point. Apparently the Retreat had its own steamer landing until quite recently, when the boats still plied every river to its navigable ends. This he learned from Mr. French. Edward had found him a challenging sort, a hard but more principled man than the other people, including Mary’s lawyers, who had been freely blabbing the secrets of the Retreat. No one but French, Edward observes, seems to show the most ordinary loyalties, seems to be on her side. Mr. French is clearly much older than Miss Mary, but he has remarkable posture; he reminds Edward of the gym instructor at St. Paul’s School, not a pleasant association, not that Edward had spent much time under the gym teacher’s supervision, not that Edward lasted very long at St. Paul’s. French’s voice has a boom to it, as if his broad chest has no other function than to magnify sound. An extraordinarily handsome man; if he had been born in a higher class, his looks could have taken him to the top. Whether or not Mr. French is in fact the “expert” at this farm, he looks as if he could master whatever he chose.
“Where would you like to start?” he asks.
Edward has no idea where. At the moment he is taking in the house, its squat Victorian presence, its broad overhanging eaves: the whole facade on this side seems arranged around the stoop and entrance. Not a handsome house, in his estimation. The wing to the left is of older vintage, Georgian perhaps, the remains of a fire no doubt, sometime between the landing at Jamestown and the victory at Yorktown. Somewhere in there. This part of the house is more like what he had expected to see when the idea of a farm called Mason’s Retreat was first presented to him; there is smoke coming out of the chimneys at that end: the kitchen must be there, the laundry. Then there is a summer kitchen, he can tell that’s what it is by the stovepipe sticking through the center of the pavilion roof, and next to it what must be a smokehouse, brick, with a vented cupola. Mr. French is now backing the car around, as Edward had said that he would like to “get a lay of the property” before “inspecting the farm operation.” Involuntarily, he can hear his own phrases being quoted back to him, but this is pretty much what, last year, he said to the manager of the machine works he had just purchased, and it had seemed to go over well. He can’t tell with Mr. French. At least with Miss Mary it was obvious that she hated his guts.
In a break in a thick yew hedge he sees the bone-white flash of gravestones. Those old Mason spirits; they can have no complaints. They get to have their eternal rest in a bower. This place is immaculate, the grounds set out in rigid Franco-American style, with straight lines of box bush marking off terraces as the natural terrain slopes down to the water. The whole place is abloom with late-summer flowers.
They drive out the lane, out of the shade of the beeches and pecans, and it seems to Edward that the fields stretch for miles. Mr. French is playing it very close. “This is a pasture,” he says. “There’s another pasture.” They take a left, and they’re heading toward some open water quite far ahead, but it’s difficult to see much of the landscape, as they are driving through cornstalks close to ten feet high. “Corn,” says Mr. French. They arrive at the end of the corn lane, and there are two magnificent mulberry trees right along the riverbank. Edward gets out, walks up to the edge, and looks down about six feet to the pebbly beach, and he is suddenly struck with the longitudinal beauty of this attenuated landscape: the river is at least two miles wide here, and then there is another spit of land, shades and degrees of green, water grasses with tufts of white blossoms, wild privet, and scraggly water elm; then, in places, a magnificent canopy of pines—he knows they are loblollies because he has just asked Mr. French, who has joined him on the bank—and beyond this array he can see or perhaps just sense the Chesapeake Bay, and the sky is a riot of waterfowl and the light strangely colorless, pure, something he pictures in Provence. Well! Without expecting it, certainly without intending it, he feels the oddest, most unearned—“unearned” is his word—burst of pride: human pride for the ability of his consciousness to appreciate what he is seeing; American pride for this landscape that seemed so immeasurable; and finally, good God, Mason pride for a family that saw this land in 1650-whatever and decided to drop anchor perhaps not a hundred feet from where he stood.
He turns to Mr. French. “It’s beautiful. I hadn’t imagined. It’s a landscape I know nothing about. Nothing like it in New England.”
“Yes, sir,” says Mr. French. “We take a lot of pride.”
“Just what I was thinking myself,” he says.
They walk through the grasses back to the car, and Edward finally introduces to Mr. French the one doubt, the accumulation of disbelief in this unexpected turn in his life, which he had until now spoken to no one. “Miss Mary wanted to give this all to the Catholic Church, if I understand right.” This fact had not been offered but had been gleaned, sifted out of the long, pompous sentences of the lawyers in Baltimore, confirmed by the steward on the ferry. He now forwards this piece of intelligence to Mr. French, uncertain of what it might yield.
“Yes, sir, I believe she did.”
“So why isn’t that what happened?”
“The church didn’t want it. It had no use for it.”
Mason might have pursued this further: When did the Catholic Church ever say no to new assets, and what, therefore, could be wrong with this one? His mind danced over the distractions of history to a more immediate truth. “So she would give it to me because I can’t refuse it?”
“Yes, sir. Because you’re the blood. Because you can’t say no.”
“Seems to me you’d have more right to it, if it were up for grabs.”
Mr. French doesn’t bother to answer this, and by the end of the day—a day Edward will spend in Mr. French’s company even though the original plan had been to be back in Baltimore in time for lunch—he will understand that Mr. French has already had all the benefits of the place without being subject to any of its curses.
Edward shakes his head, as if asserting his free will in this matter, but it’s clear to him that whatever dark forces are in play—his self-regard, his needs, the drawing power of family, the pull of the land—not only does he not have the option of saying no, he doesn’t want to. How many people does he know who own vast estates on the Eastern Shore of Maryland? “Well then, let’s see what you are doing with the cows.”
For the next hour the previously taciturn Mr. French talks almost without pause. There is nothing about Jersey cows that he does not describe in the most minute detail: the characteristics and history of the breed, their peculiar propensity for breech births, their body weight to milk production ratios, the butterfat content of their milk, their preferred species of pasture grass, the molasses content of their silage, their choicest body parts for roasts and stews. Edward has not been raised in a milieu where mastery of large bodies of technical information wins any points, and never in his life has he heard one person spout such a quantity of it. In the farmyard Mr. French takes him first to the “hospital barn,” a term Edward considers probably hyperbolic until they open the door to a gleaming tile-lined central corridor running through equally spotless and equally high-gloss stalls, where two black men in starched white coveralls—one quite aged and scarred in the face and blind, it would seem, in one eye, a father and son introduced as Robert Junior and Robert Baby—are going about their labor and ministrations to various bovine patients. Mr. French takes Edward to the “breeding office” at one end of the hospital barn, and on the wall he sees photographs of cows, paintings of cows, portraits of cows, and he sees ledger books of births and deaths, family trees captured at a level of detail that would make the royal family jealous.
Edward can only slump into the desk chair. He pushes back a small pile of papers to rest his arms on the desk, which makes Mr. French flinch. “Why do you do all this? Does it pay? Can it really matter all that much?” he asks.
“Does it pay?” Mr. French repeated. “No. I’d say it does not. Not anymore. Dairying has taken a different direction. But this is Miss Mary’s life’s work.”
“Yes, sir. She’s made quite a study of it.”
“I see that,” says Edward, “but why?”
“To produce safe milk for children.”
Sure, safe milk, but Edward can tell easily enough that French is being, if not coy, then evasive. Why, indeed, would the daughter of the Eastern Shore’s most prominent family—at least historically speaking—devote thirty years of her life, the last thirty years of her life as it turns out, to this?
“It’s what she came to,” Mr. French says.
“What she came to?”
“The choices she made.”
“To turn the Retreat into what it is,” he answers, and with that, they are back where they started, and Edward likes and admires French more than ever because on this clever circle through his questions he has divulged nothing. God, with a manager like that at your back you would be bulletproof.
“So that’s it,” says Edward, meaning, The tour is over?
“No, sir. That’s the husbandry.”
“What’s the rest?”
So they are off on another round, the holding sheds, the milking barn, the milk storage, electric generators running constantly, chillers cooling the product, steam pressure sterilizers, and turbine steam bottle washers—a “sanitary dairy” it’s called—and the cows come in, and six pairs of hands, some white, some black, grasp their teats and fill pails of milk, and it goes into the chilling room and then into bottles and thence to Baltimore. By now Edward is frightened—yes, that’s the word—frightened by the prospect that any of the technical challenges might redound to him as owner, this “mantle” he had, he admits, so airily assumed in Miss Mary’s presence, and he begins to feel the peculiar weight of the Retreat on its owners—the burden, as she said.
Everything is immaculate, like the gardens around the Mansion House—as he has learned to call it—like the white coveralls worn by the workers in the hospital barn. He thinks with dismay about his works in Manchester, the accumulations of flawed machinings tossed into a corner, decades of unfiled paperwork. Edward would like to think he’ll have the place looking like, well, looking like the Retreat, but God, how exhausting to maintain it so. He gives voice to this last thought. “Miss Mary has maintained the farm in extraordinary repair,” he says.
“Only way to do it,” says the upright Mr. French, who adds, “but perhaps it is not quite right to say Miss Mary has ‘maintained’ it. She built it, sir. Everything you see, except”—he points across the farmyard—“the mule barn.” He tells Edward that she tore down most everything else and started over. Three carpenters worked here nonstop for seven years. As French describes it, the whole enterprise sounds biblical. He says the carpenters built houses for themselves to live in first and then built what you see and then burned down their houses when they left.
By now Edward has learned that Mr. French is, in his own more diligent way, just as willing to divulge information as anyone he has met during this whole episode. He takes this surprising piece of evidence in silence. The whole place, every brick and batten, ear of corn and blade of grass, every genetically perfect cow and uniformed employee, is part of an obsession. Edward reflects on obsession, and on these carpenters, and his mind suddenly jumps madly to the building of the Pyramids, to the fanaticism behind them, to the thousands of slaves the pharaohs employed to ready their tombs. Somehow death is hanging over not just his visit—his visit, clearly, is about almost nothing but death—but over this place, this farm, this meticulously maintained but peculiarly joyless family estate. They’re heading toward the final set of structures, the part of the operation Mr. French calls “cultivation,” stables and mule barns, implement sheds, corncribs and silos, and more black people to meet Snick—yes, he heard that right—Snick Hardy the mule driver, Raymond Gould the harness maker. Edward and Mr. French are standing in the open maw of the mule barn, and Mr. French says, as if to answer the troubling thoughts in Edward’s mind, “This is where they found the boy’s body.”
“Aha,” says Edward, because he isn’t really listening. He’s thinking about death in a more abstract sense, and getting the hell out of here, and this information, so apposite to his reflections, at first is processed as simply another voice in his own head. He makes sense of it in a double take. Oh yes, the boy’s body … Of all the stories he has already heard about the place, a reference to this particular body was new to him. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
Oral French realizes he has mentioned something Mason knows nothing about, something big, something he couldn’t imagine had been left unspoken. Not that Miss Mary would have spoken of it, because she never does. But he realizes as well that even the gossips can’t speak of these painful events that captured the lives of so many people: Mister Wyatt—he wonders if Miss Mary mentioned Mister Wyatt, her father, to Mason—Miss Mary; himself and his wife, Alice; Abel Terrell and his wife, Una; Uncle Pickle Hardy; Zoe and Zula and Hattie’s Mary in the Mansion House; and Beal, Beal Terrell, God bless her and God bless the rest of us who have loved her, and so what if she was colored, no one—French is a powerful man, a man of principle with strong arms—no one will say a bad thing about Beal Terrell in his presence and not pay for it, and … and Mr. French can hardly pair the names these thirty years later, Randall and Thomas. Randall and Thomas. And Beal. Oh, French knows what he is putting Mason through, a reenactment of so many ancient emotions, grief and regret, relief and joy. He knows it is unfair because he has gone from regarding Edward as a fool to someone who was born too high to know any better. But now Mason is asking him what he means—what boy’s body? But French is not going to answer. “I’m sorry, sir,” he says. “I misspoke.”
“I had just forgotten for a moment about the boy. Who was he again?”
“No, sir,” says French. “I was supposed to show you around the farm.”
He sees Mason regarding him. They are in the patch of bare earth at the center of the farmyard. French tries to imagine how Mason is seeing all this. The barns, the dairy, the dwellings for the hands and, at the far end, the grander house with three chimneys and green-and-white-striped awnings, which Mason would have to assume, correctly, is French’s own domicile and which marks the east end of the farm in the same way that the Mansion House marks the western end. And in these buildings, doing their work, going about their lives at this very moment, are perhaps twenty souls—French isn’t sure, for example, whether the dairyman McCready has returned from town yet—and all these people, whether they know it or not, are bound by stories, and Mr. French is trying to decide how much of any of these stories Mason should hear, because strangely he wants to tell them. But for the moment he’s not going to say anything more about the boys and about Beal.
“I accept that,” says Mason. “I’m here in unusual circumstances, Mr. French, but I am not here to pry into other people’s business.”
The tour is over, and French, out of gratitude for this last remark and out of a sudden avuncular fondness that surprises him, asks Mason if he would like to come down to his house for some lemonade. Mason accepts. They discuss the current crew of workers as they pass by their modest homes, and French corrects Mason’s suggestion that good labor is hard to find. No, he says, there’s been too much labor, too many good men and women on the Eastern Shore for the last hundred years, white and black, eager to work, eager to join a going concern; too much labor, a condition against all logic and the laws of economics. And too much land. There’s too much of everything on the Eastern Shore. Mr. French was raised in Pennsylvania, where there was just a tiny bit less of everything than everyone needed, which yielded a fine, equitable society. French takes Mason to the back door of his foursquare home, one of the few structures on the place not built by Miss Mary, and called “the French House” in his honor. He introduces him to Alice, a solid, broad-shouldered woman with a round face and chipmunk cheeks that bespeak warmth and equanimity. She’s quite tall, like Mary—a race of Amazons, Edward thinks, and for a moment he tries to formulate a joke along these lines that he will share at the club when he gets back to Boston, as if he had spent weeks lost in the jungle. The three of them settle under the porch awnings to enjoy the water view, and Mr. French, buttressed by his wife’s presence, the comfort of the porch, and the throat-loosening tang of lemonade, is happy to take a few minutes to tell stories of Mason’s Retreat. The Retreat has been their home, a place for daughters to be born and grow, their life’s work: first the peaches, then the cows. Neither orchardist nor animal husband, French is a manager, a leader of enterprises, a good judge of men. In the years to come, French will regret that he never sees Mason again, not after Miss Mary’s death, when Mason became owner of the Retreat but in no way its master. In time, Mr. French will forget entirely about Edward Mason as the Retreat enters what he knows is going to be its decline, because in this century, with its already established alternating pattern of orgies of destruction and binges of consumption, there is really no obvious role for the Retreat to play. It has been remade twice in French’s lifetime and denied both times. Denied a third time—denied thrice—when the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus refused it as a “retreat for prayer and contemplation.” Besides those fewer and fewer workers who make their livelihood on the place, no one needs the Retreat. Mr. French will regret that he never sees Mason again, because he thinks that the man has been raised to accomplish very little in his life, but if he came to the Retreat, picked it up as it fell from Miss Mary’s ravaged palm—if Mason had done that, it would have been good for him and good for the Retreat. But it didn’t happen. When Mr. French died, in 1928, Mason was in England and now quite definitively a fool; the Retreat was again in decline, and no one had the slightest interest in saving it.
Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Tilghman
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The story starts as an interesting story about a woman attempting to find a male heir to inherit the legacy of The Retreat, a huge enclave in Maryland. The woman is dying of cancer, and before she reaches her decision, the reader journeys into the history of the house and land. The trek becomes tedious, and the reader quickly loses interest and wanders misty-eyed in the haze of endless characters. I felt the book would hold hidden merits and therefore attempted to keep to the path. The reading proved to be an exercise in futility.
I found this novel to be boring and plodding. The myriad characters were not finely drawn, and I just didn't care what happened to them after a while. The plot was contrived and weighed down with an inordinate amounts of minutiae. It all seemed like so much filler -- calculated to conceal the rather weak plot. Some of the most important characters -- Beal, for example -- were darned-near faceless. I would like to have achieved a better sense of her, a black woman who ultimately married a white male at a time when interracial marriage at a time when such marriages were rare and dangerous. But she remained little more than a stick puppet. I only read this book to justify the money I'd wasted on its purchase'
Near the end of this truly wonderful novel, there's an observation that in a place whose history predated the nation's founding by over a hundred years, people had constantly wondered what now -- had wanted to anticipate the future while being inexorably driven by the past. This beautifully conceived and executed epic is tragic from the outset, yet fundamentally optimistic in its vision. I lived on the Eastern Shore for only 4 years, in the 1960s, yet those experiences have shaped, even haunted, the rest of my life. Aside from the pure joy of reading it, this book gave me lasting gratitude that my own family was spared the choices Thomas and Beal had to make. There HAS been progress, even though we should have done more. -- catwak
Interesting historical tale from the eastern shore. Another great Tilghman read.